Reuning with Radcliffe and Harvard

How alumnae and alumni get together

The Radcliffe Class of 1963 has made history. Not only were its members the first group of 'Cliffies to receive Harvard degrees, they were also the first to celebrate a joint reunion — their tenth — with their Harvard counterparts. "At the time I was an Overseer at Harvard," recalls Adele Simmons '63, one of those who pioneered the event. "It seemed particularly silly for me to go to a reunion that did not include the institution on whose governing board I served."

Now that coeducation is taken for granted, it may be hard to appreciate what a landmark decision the reunion committees of Harvard and Radcliffe '63 made. Not everyone was in favor. Some Radcliffe classmates "felt that some intimacy would be lost," Simmons says. "But we organized at least one event for Radcliffe graduates particularly, to explore issues we were facing as women. It is important to remember that the women's movement had already taken off in 1973, and a lot of people were trying to sort through what it meant to their lives. We all wanted time for this conversation, but we could do that within the framework of a joint reunion."

Nor was the blended celebration an easy sell to Harvardians, says then Harvard class secretary Michael Deland. "It was a new and different idea." Reunion cochair Ronald Skates remembers that there were some complications in linking Harvard's more- and Radcliffe's less-structured reunion styles. But classmates on both sides took up the cause and in the end everything worked out.

 

As alumnae and alumni prepare to return to Cambridge for their reunions in June and this fall, younger participants may wonder: What is a Radcliffe reunion? How does it differ from a Harvard reunion? And how has it evolved over time in light of Radcliffe's shift in 1999 from a college to an institute for advanced study — and in light of the continuing need to provide alumnae of Radcliffe College with ways to share memories, sustain friendships, and remain connected with their undergraduate experience?

The Harvard College reunions during Commencement week traditionally have drawn enthusiastic crowds for boisterous, lavish affairs spanning several days. Radcliffe's reunions, while just as celebratory, have tended to be smaller and more intimate. The primary differences reflect the former relationship between the original colleges: one far older, bigger, and richer than the other. "It was hard to match the excitement of a major Harvard reunion," explains Jane R. Opel '50, former executive director of the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association (now the Radcliffe Association). "Harvard was able to subsidize its reunions to a greater degree than Radcliffe." The men also had the numbers: the Harvard-Radcliffe admissions ratio hovered at 4:1 into the 1970s. Yet over time, just as the Harvard and Radcliffe relationship has evolved, so have reunion celebrations. Increasingly, the alumni gatherings are joint affairs, even as participants strive to recognize the spirit of each college's separate past.

Sharing activities seems quite natural to Holly Walker Butler '53, cochair of her fiftieth reunion this June. Harvard men were part of "joint instruction," she notes, and "much a part of our [social] lives from the get-go": she met her late husband, Roger Butler '51, at her Orientation Dance in Radcliffe Yard. In June, the class will celebrate by attending the "Night at the Pops" concert and other traditionally Harvard events, but they will also hold a "women-only" symposium, to examine life-cycle issues, and a separate class dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club. Butler notes that her classmates were looking forward to gathering in Lamont Library — off limits to female undergraduates until 1967 — for cocktails. "It was kind of a little giggle," she says, "crossing that threshold — at last." (Library schedules, unhappily, scotched the idea.)

"Partners at Last," an illustration that ran in the Harvard Lampoon in 1893
Photograph by Stu Rosner

 "The charge is to be respectful of the past while acknowledging the present and looking to the future," says current Radcliffe Association executive director Judith Stanton. In general, a dividing line remains between pre- and post-1963 classes: the former Radcliffe and Harvard classes have separate reunion committees, while joint reunion committees plan events for the latter classes. Pre-1963 reunion committees decide on their own, with guidance from the Radcliffe Association and the Harvard Alumni Association, not only how they want to celebrate, but just how much interaction they want to have with each other, Stanton says. "Radcliffe classes and individuals who are a mere five years apart have had very different undergraduate experiences" in terms of coedu-cation, extracurricular activities, and housing. Stanton says about the old-er Radcliffe classes, "While they are delighted to be invited to Harvard class dinners, they also like to have their Radcliffe piece, too. They enjoy both flavors."

Stanton describes a "new sort of welcome at the Harvard Alumni Association" (HAA) that makes the inclusion of older alumnae much easier than in the past. One example is the HAA staff's attention to Radcliffe Day, on the Friday after Commencement, which features a major symposium, an awards luncheon, and other Radcliffe-oriented events. Says Stanton, "All reunioners know they are welcome at Radcliffe Day, and the HAA staff encourages the joint reunion-planning committees to take advantage of our programs and not set up competing events."

The Radcliffe Institute, nevertheless, "is committed to providing a Radcliffe reunion program to pre-1963 alumnae" as long as those activities are desired, she says. And there are some graduates of both Radcliffe and Harvard who would prefer some traditional reunion activities to remain separate. The Radcliffe class of 1947, for example, celebrated its fifty-fifth reunion last June and, for the most part, did it on their own. "We stick together almost by ourselves because we were classmates together," says class secretary Phyllis C. McCawley '47. "The College itself has less relevance." Jane Opel, whose office oversaw reunions until 1994, says many fellow alumnae "were very concerned about losing their identity" if they were fully involved in Harvard reunions. Many alumnae want to maintain close ties to fellow 'Cliffies and view reunions as fostering not only professional connections, but female-only gatherings where life experiences are openly shared.

"One got to know one's classmates perhaps somewhat better than the men [got to know each other]," notes Holly Butler. Her class numbered fewer than 200, and Butler expects about 90 women to return in June — small enough to have good conversations among friends. Phyllis R. Stein '63 was among those who were originally hesitant to share reunions with male counterparts. "I really appreciate meeting with my women classmates," says Stein, who spent 21 years as head of Radcliffe Career Services. Without the men, a reunion was a very different thing, she explains. "It was then focused on women's lives....It was reflective of where we were, where we had been in the years when we were undergraduates together. That's one of the reasons I wanted it to stay that way."

 

Reunion celebrations show a Radcliffe touch.
Photographs by Jim Harrison

In fact, the growing interest of men, and not just women, in personal and adult-life issues highlights a larger change in reunion planning: some of the more frothy and extroverted traditions of the last century have slipped away or shifted their focus. Harvard reunioners once participated in themed costume parades and a massive confetti battle in Harvard Stadium. At Radcliffe, according to the Radcliffe Quarterly, alumnae thespians put on a full-dress reunion show as early as 1909, a tradition that continued for decades, usually staged by the twenty-fifth reunion class. Today's reunions may feature a public-service option or a more informal variety show for classmates among the symposiums, sightseeing, and social events that fill alumnae and alumni schedules.

Meanwhile, the new tradition of Radcliffe Day ensures that a focus on the place of women at the University remains a feature of Commencement week and reunions. In recent years, the annual luncheon has drawn more than a thousand reunioners — women and men — to Radcliffe Yard. This year's symposium will examine "Women in a Violent World: Striving for Solutions"; the luncheon, served outdoors under a huge tent, will feature an address by writer Margaret Atwood, A.M. '62, recipient of the Radcliffe Medal, which is awarded for "outstanding contribution to the community of women."

 

Jane Opel, who chaired her own twenty-fifth Radcliffe reunion in 1975, remembers approaching her Harvard counterparts at the time about celebrating together. "Nothing ever did work out," she recalls — until the year 2000. "By the fiftieth reunion," she says, laughing, "everybody had mellowed."

This year's twenty-fifth reunioners, members of the Harvard and Radcliffe classes of 1978, were the last group required to apply separately to Radcliffe and Harvard. Reunion cochair Martin J. Grasso Jr. says he could not imagine separate celebrations. "Radcliffe should definitely play a role in this reunion," he says. "We are preserving that tradition and that history." Cochair Nancy (Bader) Gardiner agrees: "We honor both traditions by celebrating together. For graduates of my era I think there is a range of feeling about Radcliffe, from very strong to more attenuated," Gardiner adds. "For me, personally, Radcliffe was an important part of my identity — but so was Harvard."

 

Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan '02 is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She is also an editorial analyst at the Atlantic Monthly.        

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